måndag 20 oktober 2014

The role of the lecturer

Here, the function of the position lecturer is discussed from the two perspectives at UC Berkeley and at U of Borås and especially the engineering education view is reflected upon. The definition and todays’ usage are a bit different but the intention with the position is quite similar. There has for a long time being discussed about the importance of lecturers and how they will be placed in research universities (I limit here the discussion to the case where there is both research and undergraduate/graduate education). A lecturer here is a person who is fully (or almost fully) devoted to teaching at the university but that may or may not have other duties outside the university. I will here focus on the persons who are fully employed by the university mainly because in general it is difficult to have a long term commitment with people working part-time with short-term contracts if they should be in a leading position for developing new courses or programs. There is a special need for those as well but it should be in more special cases such as a special course, a period where there is a lack of other staff, and to cover sudden increases in the work load.

The discussion will cover the purpose of the lecturer as such but also its usefulness and validity in the main courses of the program. There is a difference in the undergraduate education as noticed in an earlier blog post where UC Berkeley use 4 years undergraduate program and U of Borås only uses 3 (which is in line with the Bologna process) but both system face nevertheless the same type of fundamental structure regarding core courses in the main subject and who is eligible of its education and teaching. To make it comparable I use the word major to define the program content whether it is in the US or in Sweden.

Situation today

Univeristy of Borås, which is a university that has been heavily depending on the undergraduate education but more and more goes into research, several different teaching positions are used. The main teaching is performed by either lecturers or adjuncts. A lecturer has in general a doctoral degree and fulfills some other requirement as well regarding courses in pedagogy etc. It is possible to weigh in working experience and especially development and creation are emphasized. The adjuct position reflects a person without a PhD degree but with a working experience from outside the university (and as a general rule have at least a master’s degree). Both positions are mainly focusing on teaching but the lecturer position may have time devoted for research or professional development. Specifically, if a lecturer has reached the rank of docent (docent degree), more research is expected. Both the lecturers and adjunct positions are tenure positions in the sense that they are long-term contracts (permanent employment). In addition to the adjucts and lecturers is the research faculty with the professors (associate or full professors) that are included in teaching. General a professor has 50% teaching in the employment which also includes supervision of students. 

At UC Berkeley, the lecturer position is mainly used for people from industry with a PhD degree that is teaching on the undergraduate level to bring in the industrial perspective on the education. They are in general persons with long experience in industry and they only work part-time as teachers and are only contracted for one semester at a time. At the chemical engineering department, there are also a couple of lecturers which are full time employed and they have special assignments necessary for the undergraduate education. However, it is in a transition period whether these positions should merge into tenure (long-lasting) positions or not. The main teaching has been performed by the research faculty but a declining number of these positions in combination with a steady increase in number of students have led to the change and the introduction of more lecturers. The research faculty generally has one course every semester which means that they are involved in teaching all year around for the academic year (the courses are semester based in length).

Purpose of education

First; often one intends to put the student in focus in all discussion. This is fine in the sense of that the student is the product but it has to be taken at a higher level. The focus should above all be “Why do we educate the students?” and “What purpose should they fulfill?”. We have to make sure that every student that comes in will get the best possible education but that education should fill a purpose and it is a multipurpose education we have. It is multipurpose in the sense that we need to cover many needs; it is the need of trade and industry; it is the need for research to develop the coming products/processes; it is the need for universities to teach new students and to perform research; it is the need for the society to have people who can contribute (e.g. to tax, to welfare, to industry, to university, to joy and to development);  and it is the need for the student who want to get a good future (interesting job, well paid or whatever reason they have).

Each of these purposes has their own list of things the student should be able to do after graduation and it is not possible to meet them all at once. What we can do is to make sure that the student who is graduating can assimilate necessary knowledge in a short time and then become productive at whatever area he or she chooses. However, the more of the specific knowledge needed for a particular branch that is incorporated in the product (i.e. the student) the better it is for those receivers in that area (it is not uncommon that there is a need in industry to hire new staff but there is just not time to train them which leads to that the company may be short-staffed for longer time than necessary). However, it is not the role of the university to target each and one of all industries (who knows what the need might be tomorrow if a new company gets started) but we have to make sure that the time needed before the new employed is useful is as short as possible regardless of where they end up and that they are attractive on the market. 

Following this strategy it is possible to set up a couple of rules for the undergraduate teaching and then see if they are consistent with the lecturer position (this is by no means a full coverage but serves its purpose in the following discussion):

1)      Students should have a necessary base knowledge in matters important to society (solved by breadth courses on a general level)
2)      Students should have base knowledge in matters important to industry (core courses in each major)
3)      Students should have base knowledge in matters important to research (core and elective courses)
4)      Students should have knowledge in matters important for their own growth (all courses)
5)      Students should know how to get new information
6)      Students should know how to be critical and how to judge information   (only possible when the other rules are fulfilled)

Based on these rules, I cannot see a major problem of having dedicated teachers providing the base knowledge in the core courses. In fact, I can see a number of positive effects with this approach especially since the number of faculty are decreasing.  We really should use our researchers in smaller classes where it is possible to better emphasis critical thinking and discussion about the meaning of the different subjects. This will be important for the students and will definitely mark that the research faculty is highly involved in the growth and progress of the students. This will be an edge of the education and something I find necessary in the harder competition about the best students among the universities. It is in line with the question of how to motivate students to campus when there are so good on-line opportunities (such as regular courses or MOOC).


My view upon full using lecturers

I support the idea of having a couple of professors/lecturers fully dedicated to teaching:

1)      A person fully dedicated to teaching will easier be aware of what is happening in this particular area (education) and can thus act as a bridge between this discipline and the other research faculty
2)      Most of the undergraduate teaching does not demand that you are at the research front in fact the model used today let researchers teach courses which could be far away from their own research area so the connection is still very weak.
3)      You will get more stability and can follow the course impact during several years. Therefore it is easier to plan following courses and to implement parts in the earlier courses where the whole curriculum is in focus.
This will imply for most of the cases that it will be on the core courses because:
1)      They are the most general courses
2)      If there are to be a sustainable and continuous course development there has to be a longer commitment to the course
3)      I assume that most of the elective courses are derived based upon the research interest at the faculty and they should be closer to the research front


Important issues

1)      Do not move the power of the course curriculum and overall course content from the research faculty. There must be an “application” to do any major changes or a number of minor changes to the faculty committee responsible for the chemical engineering program and this must be approved before implemented. Note that this does not impact the style of teaching and how the individual lectures are structured etc. but it controls the overall content in the course. On a higher level this is evaluated by some evaluation authority within each discipline but these evaluations are not done so frequently and leave plenty of room for individual interpretations.
2)      Make sure that there is a link between the research faculty and their view of what the student should know in each area and the lecturer who is forming the foundation of that vision. This could for example be thermodynamics, differential equations, unit operations, mathematical modeling etc.
3)      Chemical engineering is a profession education and we need to keep the strong connection to the profession. This implies a good contact with people working outside the university. I think there is a very good opportunity for the process design course where it is possible to have teachers with industrial experience that is responsible for the course. If it is not possible to engage industrial experienced people to take a course responsibility at least it should be possible to have them coming for a couple of lectures and to be part of the oral review and presentations. Other interactions are study visits or company fares (possible on the university campus).

Transition of the lecturers as of today

The way lecturer mainly are used today is to: cover up for the teaching which would be difficult to perform otherwise; deliberate research faculty to have more research oriented and elective courses which are beneficial for the students and where the faculty professor (tenure/ladder etc.) can make a real contribution and have more peer-to-peer interaction; and finally to bring in competence not easily found among the university teachers (the trade and industrial aspects). In Sweden, the position is either a part of the academic ladder or a position dedicated for teaching. The amount of teaching is depending on other assignments or possibilities of attracting funds for research.

Remember why these people are hired. Today many of these lecturers (or adjuncts) are present because they have experience from industry and thereby bring in this perspective. However, if they are at the university for an extended period their information becomes more and more outdated and the question is if they provide the wanted competence initially looked for. 

This picture must thus be changed with the implementation of tenure lecturers and the transition will be noticeable. Initially, there will be a need for national (or international?) advertising of lecturers to these positions which will be a good window of promoting this idea of the educational system and also a good way to really attract the persons needed for these positions.

The lecturer would not be on short-term contracts but rather on a stable tenure position. I envisage that with full time teaching I include time for course preparation and course development as well as being in the front line of what is going on in the educational area from a research perspective. However, I think there is another twist that must be considered. What kind of career is this position associated with? To me, I think it should be possible to do a similar career as the ladder ranked professors (but it takes longer time to achieve the necessary progress in the research area) by including a small portion of the lecturers’ appointment as dedicated to be involved in one of the research groups (see figure). It will not be enough to lead an own research group but still enough to be involved in supervision of graduate students and own research projects (maybe more heavily pronounced in times outside the academic year). To get a good usage of the time and resources I firmly believe that there must be incorporation in existing research groups (but with an attractive offer to these groups regarding financing so they will be view as an asset already from start).

Figure 1. Transition of the situation today to the challenges of tomorrow. Note that the amount of teaching represented by the green area is equal in the two cases. In this particular example, 6 part-time lecturers is replaced by 3 full time-lecturers.


The question of how to incorporate the lecturers will be a discussion mainly for the UC Berkeley case because at U of Borås the positons are already in place since long. The lecturer must be responsible to present the courses and the idea behind larger changes to the research faculty (or the portion of those who are responsible for the development of the chemical engineering program). It is important that in each of the stages that there is a discussion between the content in the core courses, they learning outcomes and an evaluation of the student’s ability to master the senior elective courses. This involves a direct link between the lecturer and the research faculty in the elective courses where the program board could serve as a mediator to ensure that all qualities are included and where they would best fit in.

In the same manner, there must be an increased exchange with the industry (possible this could be done via the alumni association) where the demands (wishes) are explained and then evaluated and hopefully incorporated. I see this as more possible to perform if there are full time lecturers than with the situation existing today.



It is obvious that regardless of the US or the Swedish system, there is a need for lecturers at higher academic level. They could be more or less involved in research but their main emphasis is in teaching and education. The system existing in Sweden (at University of Borås) emphasizes the necessity of performing teaching  by using the same name for the faculty dedicated for a research career as well as for the faculty devoted for full time teaching. Problem here is that it can give mixed signals about the position and what the intention with the position is. It is definitely a heritage of the origin of the university where teaching has been in the front line for a long time but recently more emphasis is made into research. As a function of this history, there has been a need for stable position of the lecturers at the university with a number of different options for motivate the staff to stay and perform their duty. On the other hand, UC Berkeley have its main focus on research but at the same time the necessity of performing excellent undergraduate teaching is prominent. In both system, there is a place and a need for persons devoted for teaching with challenges of how to make the positions incorporated into the current structure and with development possibilities for the employers.

onsdag 8 oktober 2014

Teaching at undergraduate levels

In this post I will describe how teaching is performed at the two universities and what separates them. The main comparison will come from the course Process Design (CBE160) at UC Berkeley and the corresponding counterpart at University of Borås (Process Design, 42K17D). However, I have had a number of different courses both at University of Borås but also at Chalmers University of Technology which will be included in the comparison. The picture can thus not be extrapolated to cover the whole educational system but give a fair picture of the specific education in the undergraduate level of chemical engineering. 

UC Berkeley
The courses have several key moments: lecturing, home work, quizzes, reports, presentations and final exam.  The professor (teacher) usually have the lectures and prepare for the home work and quizzes but the GSI’s are the main working force for evaluate and correcting the different assignments (sometimes even undergraduate students that have passed the course with honors can be used). By this construction, it will in theory not be much more work for the professor regardless if the class is 15 or 150 students. In reality, there is always a difference which is seen on the office hours (the time where students can meet their lecturers and ask questions). 

In the system, the students do not register for the courses in the spring until the end of the fall semester. For chemistry and chemical engineering a first selection is done already in the first year when the student chose the chemistry course but there is no determination of which program they will chose among these two (the student might reconsider and not pursue a major in these subject as well but it is not possible without this course). As an extra check (preliminary consideration) there is a course within chemical engineering already in the first year (not mandatory but recommended) that will give an indication of number of students in the following years. 

In general each course has the same amount of lecturing hours as the amount of credits, i.e. a course for 3 credits has 3 lecture hours every week. In addition to these lecturers there might be lab work and office hours. The number of office hours is generally taken as 2 times the number of lecture hours. 

In the fall 2013, an honor code was introduced at UC Berkeley. This honor code: "As a member of the UC Berkeley community, I act with honesty, integrity, and respect for others." is a guide and a starting point for discussions about honesty, integrity and respect. It is a help to clarify what is appropriate or not in for example the classroom or in home works. With the internet age, plagiarism and certain other forms of academic misconduct are becoming much easier and also more common. However, such misconduct (without reflecting to the code of laws etc.) has been found to decrease if honesty and integrity are promoted. This is now a part of all new courses for the freshmen and could be reminded in homework and exams as well.

The faculty (the researching faculty) should teach one course each semester and they switch courses from time to time. They courses are general chemical engineering, which is somewhat a mandatory task for each and every of the faculty to master. There is what I can see not a strong correlation between the courses on the undergraduate level and the research area for each faculty. At the chemical engineering department, short contract teachers are used (mainly from previous PhD graduates) to cover the need of teachers with the declining number of research faculty. These are hired on a semester basis. A few full time lecturers are also present and are there to ensure stability of specific courses (like the unit operation lab course) and program development.

University of Borås
There are several categories of employees at the university. Some of them are full time lecturer (both those with a PhD degree and those without, referring to lecturers and adjuncts). Beside of these there are also those who pursue research and that are involved in teaching. Normally, a full professor has up to 50% of teaching in the contract but that include undergraduate, and graduate teaching (including master thesis supervision which is student research).

It is up to each lecturer to decide their own teaching and this gives a broad variety of techniques. Most courses in the undergraduate level have the traditional structure with lectures and exercises. Because University of Borås is not an old research university, very few GSIs are present and the exercises are therefore taken care of by the teacher him or herself. At Chalmers University of Technology, the PhD students will participate in teaching and act generally as supervisors for lab work or as assistants for the exercise classes. 

A full course load is 60 credits for one year and the courses are mainly 7.5 credits each. The year is divided in quarters which mean that there are two courses in parallel each quarter. The number of lectures varies between the different subjects but are somewhat reflecting the credits (roughly 5-6 hours or lecturing every week for each course and then in addition an extra 3-5 hours of exercise or lab work). In many of the courses, there is an open door policy meaning that the teacher is available (if present) for the students to ask at any time. However, for some courses (especially those with many students office hours are used).

It was encouraging to see the number of different approaches that was seen at the different courses. To attend other lectures is seldom something that we do as teachers/lecturers/professors within academia. It is however, important in order to get new ideas and to see how other deal with the same kind of difficulties in separate subjects. At UC Berkeley, they have something called open classroom, where you can attend a lecture from one of the distinguished teacher award professors. This gives a great opportunity for the rest of the colleagues to easily listen and watch and to get inspired. It gives also a chance for the awardee to spread his or hers technique in a natural environment. 

I have had the opportunity to attend several other lectures at UC Berkeley within different courses belonging to the major in chemical engineering. It was very interesting and gave a good understanding about education from different teachers. Generally, they are really good at trying to engage the whole class even if the number of students is high. It is done by quizzes and small examples where the students have to be active. Also there are questions being asked to the students. All of this is monitored and added to their total score of the course (often the whole course is made up of credits from home work, quizzes, mid-term exam and final exam). The quizzes are given unannounced and on lecture time (if the student is not present there is no second chance to answer the questions). This system is easy for the teacher (especially if there is a GSI helping with the correction) and shows the necessity for the students to be at the lectures. The actual learning outcome is questionable because the question must be rather simple to be done in such a short time but it will anyway give the students something to think about if they didn’t understood the questions or make them understand that they have to read the material and go through the lecture notes again (all the quizzes I have seen were on material from previous lectures).  It also makes the student alert and that they attend the lectures (late arrival on the quiz means less time to finish it).

I was curious about the level of the courses and on the lectures. Here, my assumption was that since UC Berkeley is one of the highest ranked universities and attracts many students these students should be highly motivated and be on the edge all the time.  In the fall 2014 more than 73,000 applications was made to UC Berkeley for freshman studies and in addition more than 16,000 transfer student applied from other universities. The total amount of students are about 25,000 spread out on 4 years which gives the yearly intake to be around 6250 and thus a ratio of about 14 students per available position. It was however striking that the classes are not on a different level compared to what we have in Sweden. On the contrary, in many classes there is an emphasis of basic understanding rather than to go too deep into the subjects. By this way they really build a foundation to start new courses from or wherever they find new information to judge. Especially, this progression is seen within the courses but also on a program level there is a good referral between the different courses. For example: “If this is not fully clear for you, I suggest you look up the material in course xx”.

It is obvious that the teachers know about the high selectivity of students and their assumed potential because they expect the students to perform at high level and achieve high grades on the course. I usually have the tests made in such a way that it is almost impossible to score 100% (maybe that is achieved by 1-2% of the students) but at the courses I followed at UC Berkeley it was quite common to arrange the tests so that at least 15-20% had full score. For the students, this gives a positive feedback and will not create a problem with ranking within the class. Thus it will encourage students to help each other and work together but also is strengthen their own image of being good at the subject.

The actual teaching on undergraduate level within chemical engineering is not so much different on a course basis between the different universities. However, the amounts of credits given for the courses are somewhat more generous at University of Borås. The course in Process design to take a specific example is worth almost twice as many credits (recalculated on a common yearly basis) compared to the course at UC Berkeley. The course content is not exactly similar and we have some extra parts included in the course to make up for the fact that the students do not have the same background.